Raimond Kaljulaid: Opposition not weak

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Raimond Kaljulaid (SDE). Source: Gergey Lukecha/ERR

Estonia will surely get a normal and hardworking government in the future. Efforts to that end need to be daily. However, we would do well to admit it might take months or years and that the situation could get much worse before it starts getting better, Raimond Kaljulaid writes.

We can again hear criticism according to which the government remains in power courtesy of a "weak" opposition." As I have already written on ERR: one can always do better and the opposition will need to make even greater efforts; however, accusing the opposition of the situation in the country in no way helps move closer to solutions. Rather, we need to concentrate on local elections – changes in Tallinn could lead to changes on Toompea.

The Center Party and Isamaa made a very dangerous mistake in terms of Estonians' well-being and national security when they formed a coalition with the populist right in 2019. Most people realize this. What they cannot understand is how can Jüri Ratas ands Helir-Valdor Seeder remain blind to it. They fail to understand the sum of it on the one hand, while they pretend not to understand on the other.

Let us not forget that Isamaa has never vowed to maintain the cordon sanitaire as described by political scientist Tõnis Saarts in a recent interview to ERR. Both the Reform Party and Center Party promised not to work with the populists. Kaja Kallas kept her promise, while Jüri Ratas did not.

Now, Isamaa and Center have traded places. The former's Riigikogu group includes a few dissidents, while no Center Party politician has done anything to really distance themselves from the government.

It is very important to understand that the coalition staying together is ensured by objective interests of the partners' leaders ands their close circles. Whereas they are not the same for all the participants.

What matters most to the Center Party is holding on to the position of prime minister. The only way they will give it up is if they have no other way of avoiding being sent to the opposition.

Staying in power is also the main issue for Isamaa, while their situation is somewhat more complicated. Ideological and pragmatic issues pertaining to party funding are at play.

The Conservative People's Party (EKRE) is unlike its two partners in that the current coalition or even being represented in the government are not goals in themselves for the party.

EKRE is interested in boosting their support rating and influence but also effecting fundamental change in Estonian society and state organization. Leaders of EKRE are looking in the direction of kindred spirits in Poland and Hungary, asking themselves: why not also in Estonia?

The radical right is after changes in the entire Western world, dissolution of international organizations like the EU and NATO or at least their role being diminished, reversal of globalization, calling into question liberal values etc.

Reform and Center alliance

People most often place their hopes on an alliance between the Center Party and Reform Party. However, even if Reform could be persuaded to allow Jüri Ratas to hold on to Stenbock House, Center would find it very difficult to accept a proposal for cooperation.

What Center's board members are asking themselves is what will happen should Reform find an excuse to pull out of talks that would break down as a result. This would land Center back in the opposition which risk the party is loath to take. Even if a government is initially formed, Reform will reserve the possibility of forming a new one, still taking away Ratas' position as PM and sending his party to the opposition.

That is why Center will not take a single step toward forming a two-way coalition where it wouldn't hold a single trump card until it has objective reason to believe there is no alternative.

Will Parempoolsed (Right-wingers) force a change of pace in Isamaa?

Another hope people nurse is that the Parempoolsed group inside Isamaa can force the party to plot a new course. While I sincerely hope that they will succeed in this, the task is not a simple one. Even if the Parempoolsed manage to secure important positions inside the party next spring, it might not be enough to change Isamaa's policy in the Riigikogu.

Leaders of the junior coalition partner do not want to take Isamaa into a liberal coalition in a situation where EKRE would make up the opposition. Even worse would be to find themselves in the opposition alongside EKRE as the more boisterous national conservatives would surely take center stage there. This means that the government might not change even should the Parempoolsed succeed inside Isamaa.

Jüri Ratas for president?

There is another possibility – offer Jüri Ratas the position of president and hope he accepts. Of course, PM Ratas has officially ruled out such a possibility, much like he once ruled out government cooperation with EKRE.

In truth, Center have done their homework in this matter and analyzed possible alternatives for achieving this goal. I'm sure the party is very well aware of Ratas' chances in the Riigikogu and the Electoral College. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say this matter is the responsibility of Jaak Aab who also headed Mailis Reps' presidential campaign back in 2016.

While Ratas becoming president is theoretically possible in several different ways, they all come with major risks.

One option is to make a deal with Reform and try to win the Electoral College. Could Center and Reform secure enough support for Ratas in what will be a smaller than previously Electoral College (following Estonia's administrative-territorial reform – ed.)? Theoretically yes, but this takes us back to the beginning. What if something goes wrong? A secret vote can go in any direction. The undertaking is simply too risky to be worth dismantling the coalition.

Next, we have the favorite intrigue of some people – a grand coalition made up of Center, Reform and Isamaa or the Social Democratic Party (SDE). This would make it possible to elect Ratas president in the Riigikogu (without the election moving into the Electoral College -ed.).

Rumor has it some centrists believe that such a solution could be considered with Isamaa as the third partner. This would help Center avoid the reputation of a traitor and homewrecker. All it would take would be to wait for another EKRE scandal and issue a joint statement with Isamaa, saying how unfortunate it is as the national conservatives were given a second, third and even a fourth chance.

However, it would be a deal of dubious value for Isamaa. Once the president is elected, their usefulness in the "grand coalition" would be exhausted. How can one make sure to be heard in a situation where one's partners can show one the door at any time?

It would not be wise for Isamaa to be part of such a government and a corresponding proposal from Ratas would send them straight to the Reform Party to offer them the PM's seat in an alternative three-way coalition where Isamaa's votes would matter and its interests would be much better protected. Therefore, Jüri Ratas can neither make such a proposal to Isamaa nor can the latter agree to it.

Center's leaders have another major problem in connection with presidential elections. Who will run the party should Jüri Ratas land in Kadriorg? While Mailis Reps has never been in the public eye enough, her recent scandal has left her further weakened. Tanel Kiik completely lacks charisma, while Mihhail Kõlvart would only be a good fit for Russian voters and rub other top centrists the wrong way.

That is why I believe the Center Party is rather working toward avoiding the presidential election becoming a major drama for them and their current coalition partners, whereas the latter also have little reason to look for or consider alternatives.

A complicated situation

Therefore, dear readers, the situation is indeed very complicated and talk of failure to change it largely unfounded.

The Riigikogu opposition and the parties headed by Kaja Kallas and Indrek Saar have done and will continue to do precisely what is expected of them and do it well and in a professional manner.

Look at who are representing opposition parties in the Riigikogu – they are very often people with considerable government experience. At the same time, the government is full of people with no prior experience in a ministerial position, the Riigikogu or politics in general.

I'm sure Estonia will get a normal and hardworking government in the future. Efforts to that end need to be daily. However, we would do well to admit it might take months or years and that the situation could get much worse before it starts getting better

Nevertheless, we must not give up. That is one of the greatest challenges for the leaders of the opposition. To maintain the mettle of their own people and teams as well as keep the faith and ensure resilience in society.

Local elections will prove significant. It is rather certain today that Center will lose its hegemony in the capital, while that defeat might me much greater than Centrists believe today. It could shift the entire balance of powers and Tallinn could be the beginning of fundamental changes also on Toompea Hill. Working toward that end does not make headlines, while it is absolutely necessary and vital.

Editor: Marcus Turovski

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